Sunday, 17 May 2009

Cycling for Development

While researching topics for my trip in Namibia I came across a very interesting project: the Bicycling Empowerment Network or BEN Namibia. The aim of this small NGO is simple and compelling: give disadvantaged Namibians a means of transport and a way of generating an income.

A bicycle's benefits

The benefits of a bicycle in a developing country are numerous. Compared to a person walking, a bicycle carries up to four times the weight, goes twice as fast and actually much further. With bicycles, health workers and home-based carers can see more clients and deliver more supplies. It's also by far the cheapest mode of transport apart from walking of course.

Affordable and reliable transport can significantly improve livelihoods and contribute to sustainable development. When the rural poor - and particularly women - gain access to health, education and information, they can access markets and improve their income, thus reducing their vulnerability.

Since 2005 BEN Namibia has already distributed more than 7,000 second hand bikes in Namibia. Most of the bikes come from Europe and North America. In 2009 BEN is looking forward to hand out its 10,000th bike.

New skills & tools for new lives

The Bicycle Empowerment Centre in Katutura, Windhoek's largest township, opened in March 2009. King’s Daughters, a local church project assisting former prostitutes, and BEN Namibia decided to team up for a joint venture. The bikes were donated by the Canadian NGO Bicycles for Humanity in Ottawa.

Six former prostitutes learned how to repair bikes and now run their own business.

Across most of Namibia there is no public emergency ambulance system, and people often die because they can not afford to pay for private transport.

BEN Namibia's bicycle ambulance project began when the NGO realized that health care workers and volunteers who had received bicycles were using the luggage racks to transport clients to hospitals and clinics.

Work on the first prototype, a basic stretcher towed behind a bicycle, began soon thereafter. For the past three years now bicycle ambulances have been used to transport people for conditions ranging from scorpion or snake bites to HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. There's no doubt that bicycle ambulances save lives in remote communities.

Who would have thought that so much could be done with two wheels.

Update: Here are the links to the German online article Fahrradverleih statt Prostitution and my feature which was broadcast on Deutsche Welle's Fokus Afrika.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

I've learned a new word today

Working in the media I was already familiar with the awful concept of 'infotainment', but reading Namibia's weekly Southern Times newspaper I stumbled over another creation of our spoilt and easily distracted societies: 'polytainment'. That's the answer of the SWAPO Party Secretary General, Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana, to political youth apathy. She says, "these born-frees do not have much interest to listen for hours on end to political speeches, that's why you have to combine it with entertainment."

I'd be curious to see how 'polytainment' actually shapes up. Unfortunately we're still a bit too early. Presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for November and campaigning hasn't really started yet.

The SWAPO party has swept all past elections since Namibia's independence in the early 1990s - always with a comfortable two thirds majority. But in 2007, Hidipo Hamutenya and Jesaya Nyamu, two former leading SWAPO members and cabinet ministers, broke ranks and founded the new opposition party Rally for Democracy and Progress. It's in some ways comparable to COPE breaking away from the ANC in South Africa. Now, it's too early to tell how things will turn out, but maybe they should also look into to 'polytainment'.

And there's another interesting opposition party: the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance. Now, Turnhalle means Gym in German, but I wonder if this has another meaning here... I'll have to find out.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

Wedged between the sand dunes of the Namib desert and the Atlantic is the strange little town of Swakopmund. The architecture is an eclectic mix of early 20th century buildings as well as funky 60ies and 70ies beach town. Swakopmund is stuck in time. But that's not the most surprising... With its sea side promenades, half-timbered homes, colonial era buildings, it seems that only the wind blown sand, the palm trees and cactuses distinguish Swakopmund from holiday towns along Germany's Baltic coast.

Swakopmund has a long German history and many German-Namibians still live here. The list of sponsors for the kitchen extension of the local Youth centre for example, reads like a who is who of small town Germany:

Many street names are German: Bahnhof, Schlachter or Mittel Strasse. There are heaps of Bäckereien and Konditoreien where you can eat Apfelstrudel, Kugelhopf, Mohnkuchen or Linzertorte. Then there's the Hansa brewery, the Bismarck pharmacy and Café Anton with the low hanging curtains Germans love so much. In many ways it feels more German than Germany.

I was giggling last night when I had dinner at a great no frills sea food restaurant overhearing an elderly German tourist complaining about the lack of curtains in the restaurant "it's too loud here, curtains would make a big difference absorbing the noise".

It's a really strange, but quaint little town. And frankly a great treat after a few days roughing it out in the desert. Plus, nothing beats a Savannah Cider sitting on the beach watching the sun set over the Atlantic.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Breathless and blown away

Hiking through the dunes of Sossusvlei is a massive workout, but one that you will never forget. The world's highest dunes (up to 325 meters) are a miracle of shapes and shades. Truly one of the most impressive sights I've seen in my life.

Rediscovering primary colours

I'm sitting on Elim dune, a few hundred meters high overlooking the valley, my heart is still pumping from racing up the sand dune, my shoes are so full of sand it feels I bought them two sizes too small.

It's a real firework of colours: the deep dark red of the sand dune, the pale yellow of the dry grass of the steppe, the mountains shining golden brown, the bright blue sky. It's like I'm rediscovering colours as they shift with the changing light of the setting sun.

A quiet moment all by myself. It's difficult to describe how I feel: the serenity, the vastness, the world seems to be smiling. I know I'll be back, hopefully with friends and family to share this amazing scenery, but definitely with another guide.

Friday, 1 May 2009

My unplanned ordeal in the Namib Desert

Wednesday 1pm. I wasn't planning to go on a camping safari, but here we are about an hour and a half south of Windhoek in the sleepy town of Rehoboth - just at the rim on the Namib desert stashing up on food, water and gas.

I'm still a bit tired from a bad flight from Frankfurt down to Windhoek. A stupid French woman was kicking my seat all night long. But so far things are turning out rather well. I stepped off the plane, hitched a ride into town and walked straight into a travel agency. I was afraid I might have been whinging it a little too much, but despite its strange name the Cardboard Box Travel Agency was highly praised in the Lonely Planet Namibia guide. An hour later with a little tour planned to see the famous Sossusvlei dunes, my guide Floris picked me up - white shorts, stocky legs, short white hair and a toothless smile.

Off we set in Floris' 4WD. I had noticed the "4 sale" signs stuck to both passenger windows, but didn't think much of it at the time...

Hours later. I was just enjoying the golden afternoon desert light when Floris suddenly pulled over and I heard the flop flop flop flop of a flat tyre. Shit. We're in the middle of the Namib desert.

Floris is nice, but he's not the king of changing tyres - and I'm not either. Every time we jack the car up it comes down again. At least 6 times. 30 minutes go by. One car passes and asks if everything's ok. Yes, yes - no worries. Finally we change the tyre and set off again. 10 minutes later another flat tyre. Shit. This time it's serious because we have no more tyres.

It's getting dark very quickly and cold. Floris says we're staying here for the night, and starts pitching the tent by the dirt road. Well, great. This is not how I wanted to spend my first night in Namibia. I flash back a few hours earlier. I had hesitated and thought why don't I treat myself to a nice lodge. Sure a little expensive but comfortable, hot showers, yummy food... Ah well, I chose the camping option. Big mistake! Instant noodles and tuna are not changing my mood. At 6.50pm I'm not so talkative and hit the hay, well, hard desert.

Thursday 6am. Rise and shine. We've been stuck in the middle of the Namib desert for the past 13 hours. I'm convincing myself that it's not that bad - the sun is shining, the birds are singing, the dry yellow grass of the plain is dancing in the wind... but it's still cold and there's no soul in sight. "Let's hope help comes quickly," says Floris. More talking to himself, "but people in the desert are very slow."

Oh well, we'll have to be very patient then. But patience is not exactly my strength.

The sun is rising quickly, I wonder how long I'm going to sit on this stone by the road waiting. How terrible must it be when you're stuck in a really remote place. But do I even know if we're not in a really remote place?

After more than two hours Floris decides to take a chance and walk to the next farm. I see him walk off on the desert road first carrying the dodgy wheel, then rolling it in the dust. This is going to take ages. I take my old Economist to read: 'Africa's Next Big Man: Trusting Jacob Zuma'. I'm sitting by the embers of a dying fire and reading. Very surreal.

I've almost read the Economist cover to cover and Floris is still not back. My mind is wandering. Next week I'm planning to do a story on bicycle ambulances and Namibia's bicycle empowerment network. I think this episode is teaching me a very big lesson about how it feels to be so remote, powerless and dependent. It feels terrible - and it's not even an emergency.

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